There’s a sort of creature invented by philosophers called philosopher’s zombie or a p-zombie for short. The p-zombie, unlike say the movies featured in movies by George Romero (may he rest in peace), are not shambling, stupid, re-animated corpses. Rather, they’re people just like you or me except in one respect: they are completely unconscious. They have no inner life, no feelings, no memories, no imaginations, none of that. But in spite of not having an inner life, they are behaviorally identical to people who do have inner lives. Poke one with a pin and it will say “ouch” and act indignant with you, as if it were really feeling pain. Ask a p-zombie about a sad incident in its childhood and it may be able to do so, perhaps with tears in its eyes. But it is not “remembering” its childhood anymore than a record player is “remembering” the contents of a disk it is playing, and it is not sad any more than a classically-trained actor playing Lear is actually mourning Cordelia.
You can’t tell a p-zombie from a “real” person by observing what it does, because what it does is the same thing a as “real” person. More unsettling than that, you can’t somehow peer inside someone and tell whether or not they are a “real” person or a p-zombie. Look inside a “real” person’s brain, and all you will see are a bunch of cells squirting electrochemical signals at one another. A p-zombie’s brain is just the same way. In neither case can you observe a “mind,” see a “person,” or observe “feelings.” To be sure, you might come to confident that certain brain-states correlate reliably with states of mind. You might, for example, come to believe based on evidence from a long series of tests that a certain neuronal firing pattern is someone thinking of a white bear. But this again is only correlations of observed behaviors: when the state is observed, the subject reports thinking of a white bear. The problem is that p-zombies just as readily as “real” people can report thinking of a white bear. It’s just that the p-zombie is not really thinking of anything at all, while the “real” person is. In neither case do you actually see something inside the head that looks like a white bear, or directly observe the White Bear State of Mind.
Most philosophers think that p-zombies are physically impossible and can’t exist in our world, and at least some think that they are metaphysically impossible, that is, that they can’t exist in any possible world. One has to admit that the p-zombie is a pretty unsettling concept. Anyone you know could (in theory, anyway) be not a person, but a p-zombie. Your boss. Your parents. Your spouse. Your adorable toddler daughter who says “I wuv you” as she drifts off to sleep in your arms might not love you at all, but just be a piece of machinery carrying out its programming, unfeeling as any rock.
The concept of the p-zombie makes an interesting thought experiment possible. Suppose there were a drug that could turn you, permanently, instantly, and irrevocably into a p-zombie. Upon taking a does of the drug your consciousness would be instantly annihilated and gone for good. But no one would ever actually be able to tell that you had taken the drug. Future history will be exactly the same as if you had not done so, because the p-zombie that was you will behave exactly as you would have behaved. It will continue to get up in the morning, catch the train to work, stand around the watercooler with colleagues griping about the boss, come home in the evenings, help its children with their homework, have increasingly dutiful and diminishingly frequent sex with your spouse, age, retire, move to the Sunbelt, collect various government benefits, and die, just like you would have. Through all of this, “you” will be gone, together with all the joys and sufferings the balance of your life might contain. The p-zombie will act happy or sad or angry, happy at your daughter’s wedding or angry during its periodic quarrels with your spouse. But it just as much as you will live in the blessed calm of complete consciousness.
Thus p-zombification might be thought of not so much as a kind as an alternative to suicide, and leads me to wonder whether if it were somehow available, it wouldn’t cut off a slice both of suicides and non-suicides. I should think it would do both, and my reason for thinking so is at least in part autobiographical. At the closest I ever personally came to suicide, around the age of thirty or so, the thought that stayed my hand more than any other was that of the suffering that my killing myself would inflict on people I loved, most particularly on my parents (ironic for an antinatalist to feel that way perhaps, but emotional life is messy). I can’t really guarantee that things would have been the same had there been a way out of suffering that they and no one else need ever have known about.